In this interview, our colleague Paula Esteban, UNHCR Lebanon Senior Communications Officer, shares heartfelt real-life stories from refugee mothers she has met in the field. She also highlights UNHCR’s work ahead of winter in Lebanon, a country that has faced so much hardship over the past two years, and continues to host more than 1 million refugees -the largest number of refugees per capita in the world!
- Could you tell us about the situation of refugees in Lebanon right now?
Like all communities in Lebanon, refugees are deeply affected by the compounded crises and critical situation affecting the country. Over the last 18 months, the Lebanese currency lost more than 85 per cent of its value, prices have skyrocketed, with the poorest communities being the hardest hit. The current economic and financial crisis, coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an increase of Syrian refugees living in poverty and making difficult choices to survive every single day, including skipping meals, not seeking urgent medical treatment, and sending their children to work instead of school. The data is very telling. 90% of Syrian refugee families are living below the extreme poverty line and unable to secure their basic necessities. Half of refugee families are food insecure. With the current crisis, Lebanese nationals are suffering alike, with very limited access to livelihood opportunities to cover their most basic needs.
- What is the impact of such living conditions on the refugee children and their future?
It is very dismaying to see how, once again, Syrian refugee children are bearing the brunt of the crisis. It will have a long-term impact on refugees’ well-being and the future of their children. Instead of learning in school, many children are working to help their families make ends meet. Last week, we were speaking to a single mother of four children living in a refugee settlement who told us that her two older sons of 15 and 16 years old were no longer going to school because they had to work to help put food on the table. Still, she was unable to provide a full meal for her four children. Another refugee mother told us that for three years, she had been saving money in order to enroll her 8 and 9 year old daughters back in school, as she was not able to afford the education costs.
- Can you briefly explain, in your view, what makes UNHCR’s assistance indispensable for thousands of families?
Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita, and the current crisis is affecting both refugees and Lebanese. This is why, UNHCR’s assistance supports both refugees and their hosting communities. I would like to highlight some specific programmes which helps understand the importance of UNHCR’s interventions and the impact on families. For example, we are supporting vulnerable refugee and Lebanese families in improving their living conditions and prioritize families living in hazardous shelters. Cash assistance is another important intervention which, apart from strengthening the capacity of the families to cover basic needs such as rent, food, and medicines, and reduce their vulnerability to exploitation and harmful coping strategies, enables refugees to contribute to the local economy by purchasing directly from local markets and shops. I would also like to highlight the work of community centres and outreach volunteers, who support refugees and Lebanese in receiving updated information about UNHCR services, acquiring new skills, building social networks, increasing their knowledge through awareness-raising sessions, and receiving case management and psychosocial support services.
- And why is it so important this year to provide the vulnerable families with assistance ahead of winter? Especially that the support will be going to both Syrian and Lebanese families.
Winter is harsh in Lebanon. We can all remember how last February storm Joyce brought heavy rainfall, a sharp drop in temperatures and snow. The economic crisis will make it even harder for the most vulnerable to keep warm during the winter. To help them cope with the harsh season, UNHCR provides winter support through cash assistance, core relief items and shelter improvement kits. This year, we plan to reach the vast majority of vulnerable Syrian refugee families in addition to the most vulnerable Lebanese families to help them meet additional needs and costs due to the winter weather. I was speaking to a refugee family in the Bekaa Valley some weeks ago, who mentioned they were already anxious about the upcoming winter. Last year, as their tarpaulin roof was leaking, they spent much of the winter sleeping on damp mattresses, which they tried to dry each day out in the weak sunshine. This year, families are stretching resources thin to put food on the table while keeping their families warm. UNHCR’s assistance will aim to provide some relief, but is not enough to cover the dire needs of many refugee and Lebanese families who will struggle to cope with the winter season. We therefore ask for additional support. No one should be left out in the cold this winter.
- What are UNHCR efforts to fight COVID-19 amidst the crisis hitting Lebanon?
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, UNHCR has supported collective efforts to prevent and contain transmissions of the virus, and avoid an overstretching of the health system which could be caused by a surge in cases needing hospitalization. UNHCR supported hospitals with additional hospital beds and additional ICU beds, ventilators and other advanced equipment, as well as medicine stocks. UNHCR teams deployed all efforts to build dedicated hospital expansion facilities or rehabilitate existing unused sections and refurbish them with new medical equipment. The latter remained the property of the hospitals, with the aim to cure many more patients long after COVID-19. Right now, UNHCR is actively engaged in vaccination efforts. All refugees known to UNHCR have been reached with COVID-19 awareness through SMS, WhatsApp, social media platforms and UNHCR’s website, as well as by volunteers and partners through individual phone calls or home visits. No one is safe until everyone is safe, and we are committed to continue to support vaccination efforts. On this note, I would like to highlight the work of outreach volunteers who have been instrumental, and truly inspiring, in helping refugees be informed, registered and vaccinated. Their courage and commitment gives everyone hope.
- As we close this interview, do you have a final message to our donors who share our concerns about Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese families struggling in Lebanon now?
Donor support is crucial to ensure that we can deliver assistance on the ground and help refugee families survive the daily struggles of displacement and the current crisis facing Lebanon. Some days ago, speaking to a single mother, she mentioned how her four children were sick, but she had only been able to afford medicine for one of them. This is the situation of many refugees: mothers having to choose which of their children to give medicine to. She also mentioned how Lebanese families are also suffering, and how she wished for better times for everyone in Lebanon. So, I would like to convey her wish: better times for everyone. And it is with donor support and the support of the international community that we will be able to help her wish come true. We cannot fail her nor the many families that are struggling.